For the second offseason in a row the New York Jets are stuck in negotiations for a long-term deal with Muhammad Wilkerson. 2015 was the final year of Wilkerson’s rookie deal, and when they hadn’t reached an agreement by the start of training camp, he showed up, put aside the dispute, and went to work. Getting to work is exactly what he did, last season was a career year for the Jets star defensive lineman, he led the team with a career best 12 sacks, as well as in overall defensive harassment. For his efforts, Wilkerson was rewarded with his first career Pro Bowl selection. Perhaps it is fitting that just yesterday he was ranked as the 39th in the NFL Networks Top 100 rankings.
This offseason the Jets placed the franchise tag on Wilkerson, who along with trying to get a long term deal has been busy recovering from the broken leg he suffered in the 3rd quarter of New York’s Week 17 loss to the Buffalo Bills. With his team stuck with very little salary cap room, he also had to spend the entire lead up to the draft hearing about how the Jets were willing to trade him away. Despite the rumors, and the Jets front office seemingly being disinterested in reaching an agreement, Wilkerson has been a good sport all offseason. Rather then play it out in the press, he has stayed silent, and focused on rehabbing his injury…until now.
Yesterday Muhammad Wilkerson sat down with Brian Costello of the New York Post to tell his side of the story and voice his frustrations for the first time: “It’s shocking. It’s frustrating. Because I feel like I’ve earned it and I deserve it. It would be different if I was just a mediocre player. I feel like each and every week I’m dominating and it’s showing. The stats speak for themselves. Basically, what more do I need to do? You know what I mean?”
It is impossible to argue with anything Wilkerson said there. Since becoming a full time starter in his second season, he has done nothing but play standout football. While 2015 was the first time that he was elected to the Pro Bowl; it should have been at least his second, if not third time receiving the honor. The past three seasons, the only player in the NFL who has played his position at a higher level is three-time defensive player of the year JJ Watt.
Wilkerson has never shied away from saying that he hopes to be a New York Jet for life, however he doesn’t feel like his team feels the same way. “I’m a talented guy. Everybody knows that. I feel like they’re going to get the best they can out of me and just let me go. That’s how I feel. Do I like that feeling? No.”
Now obviously this is a business, if that weren’t the case then teams would never lose their best players to free agency. Still, it is a shame for a player who has given as much to the Jets as Muhammad Wilkerson has to be left feeling like a used bicycle. What makes this even more disheartening to Jets fans is that having him play this season out under the franchise tag is just bad business. The Jets are in dire need of cap space so that they have room to sign Ryan Fitzpatrick as well as address any other needs that may arise. If they were to sign Wilkerson to a long-term deal they would be able to make it so that he counts less against the cap than the $15.7 million that his franchise tag costs.
If the Jets were to decide that they wanted to go in a different direction with their defensive line, they would find it much easier to trade him if he was already signed to a long-term deal. The main reason it would have been so difficult for them to find a fair trade for him this offseason is that they only controlled him through the franchise tag. With him signed to a deal, they would have a much easier time finding a team willing to pay his weight in draft picks after the 2016 season.
Wilkerson is doing everything he can, short of giving up his bargaining power and showing up to Mini camp, in order to prove that he will be ready for this season. After spending most of the offseason rehabbing in Arizona, last month he moved his rehab efforts to the Jets facilities so that they could witness his progress and oversee his efforts.
As of now it appears that there is no hope for a deal to be signed before the July 15th deadline for players to sign their franchise tender’s. This means that Wilkerson will likely play out the 2016 season and the Jets will either let him walk in free agency or will tag him again for the second year in a row, thus starting this entire cycle over again. Despite all signs pointing towards a failure to reach an agreement, Wilkerson remains optimistic: “I don’t think they’re trying like they should. We’ve still got time,” Wilkerson said. “The deadline is in a month. We’ve got some time.”